Tears Tell the Truth
Fifteen years ago this week I graduated from the Hudson Institute's Coaching Certification program. Today, four CIT (coach-in-training) students who I have been mentor-coaching have just arrived in Santa Barbara to complete their own certifications. They are fretting mightily about passing their oral exams, during which they coach a real person on a real issue in front of a panel of master coaches and coaching supervision leaders. Almost a year of study, preparation, and practice must get demonstrated in a 20-minute conversation. I fret for them!
One of my more nervous coachees has developed what she calls a cheat sheet for herself. It's actually a list of "coach approach" reminders--bullet points on what to do and how to be as a way to center herself before the exam. Most of her anxiety, however, won't be addressed by simply refreshing herself on the basics. She dreads, as many new coaches do, the emergence of emotions.
When several of her coachees over the last year got choked up as they experienced fear, sadness, anger or shame during a coaching session, she flat-out froze. She fears that if she doesn't end-run any emotional moment that surfaces during the oral exam, she'll panic and blow her certification. I know she'll blow it if she doesn't meet the possible appearance of tears head-on, with an open heart.
Do you abandon your heart and retreat to your head when emotions get intense? Maybe you don't trust yourself to hold space for the emotions of others without getting swamped by them. Perhaps you think you'll lose your way in the coaching process. Maybe you are too rigidly guarded against having a coachee cross into the enemy territory of "therapy." Does your desire to spare a coachee any frustration or disappointment make you default to rescuing or cheerleading? In my early coaching days, if tears threatened to spill, I'd scramble to change the subject!
Today, I am grateful for tears, my own and my coachee's. Those sacred moments of recognition that sneak up on us, hijack us, pull us suddenly into an emotional undertow--I respect and welcome those moments. An essential truth is making its way to our awareness, elbowing ego and persona aside. As a coach, it is a privilege to bear witness to the truth that tears tell. That truth accelerates change.
Here's what I have learned for myself, and shared last week with my nervous CIT student: if tears appear, just shut up. For a few seconds, shut up, nod, breathe, smile, and then, quietly thank and celebrate the coachee for being authentic. This spacious appreciation helps them move past any self-consciousness and stay with the feeling long enough for you both to mine the data it offers. If you focus on their potential embarrassment, or wonder about how to get things "back on track," you actually miss the fast track that emotions grant access to.
We want our coachees to experience emotions as the language of the heart. Since the heart doesn't use words, it often produces tears to get our attention. Tears illuminate and communicate what might be only dimly seen, but matters most. Our role as coach becomes one of facilitating the translation from heart to head, so that actions are a by-product of both sources of intelligence. Then the stories of our lives can ultimately be shaped by the soul's agenda.